Special Request: “I need to shape my own legacy while I’m still around”

In conversation with the UK veteran. 

When ‘Untitled (Call out your name)’ first came out, Paul Woolford emerged as a seasoned producer making sharp, floor-filling house music for the masses. But as the years have unfurled the lid has been slowly lifted on Special Request, his rave and hardcore alias, luring in a specialist audience looking for tough, nostalgic club weapons. It turns out these SR tracks weren’t as new as their release dates may have suggested, but an extension of Woolford’s ongoing love affair with early pirate radio, underground culture and the product of years of experimentation in the studio.

The Special Request output is higher than ever and, with a comfortable home at fabric’s in-house label Houndstooth, he’s maintained a vigorous routine of gigging and producing to ensure he’ll be doing what he loves for as long as he wants; all this whilst planning occasional assaults on the UK charts under his given name.

It’s with an illustrious legacy in the making, and possibly his busiest year to date, that we sit down with the luminary artist whose technical prowess paired with a blasé approach to promotion make him one of the most endearing personalities in modern dance music.

What was your earliest exposure to dance music? Was there a pivotal moment in your life where you decided you were going to give this producing lark a crack?

It unfolded pretty naturally. I’d been listening to the radio all throughout my childhood and this naturally led to buying records on a weekly basis, I was purely following my interest. As I became a young teenager I was obsessed with how the sounds were made on the records, and this coincided with records like Bomb The Bass ‘Beat Diss’, Coldcut ‘Say Kids What Time Is It?’ and Steinski and Double Dee ‘Lessons 1,2 and 3’ being released. When I heard ‘Lessons 1,2 and 3’, it was playing on John Peel’s show on Radio 1 and it absolutely blew me away. All those three records were basically audio collages and this was what really triggered my interest further into buying equipment and trying to work out how to make records. At the same time, I was buying house compilation albums as I only had a small amount of money from paper rounds etc, so I’d go and buy double albums like the Jack Trax series and these completely exposed me to Chicago acid house and techno, so they pushed the desire and interest further to create.

There wasn’t really a singular moment where I decided I wanted to make records, it was more a clear and obvious thing that emerged. You know the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001? Imagine that emerging really slowly over your teenage years, and that being your thought process. That sounds well pretentious and fucking absurd, but you know what I mean. A slowly emerging monolith coming from your childhood through your early teenage years and eventually it starts showing itself.

I’ve read that you were sitting on loads of Special Request material before you started to release it. At what point did you think ‘right, I need to get these out there’ and why decide to do it then and not earlier?

Yeah, tons of it, but I never felt it was good enough to release. I knew I had to hone it and I also wanted to be damn sure that I could not be viewed as a dilettante. Especially as I was taking so much inspiration from jungle, I wanted to be absolutely certain that I had the techniques down and that it was being done properly. So I bided my time. And what happened was; I had a moment where I split with a management company that were handling all my other things at the time, the house stuff, and I became disillusioned with what was happening there for a period. So I retreated into the Special Request project and it almost immediately took over my life. I stopped sleeping and was making tracks around the clock like I had done years before, but to extremes. I was obsessed again. When that happens, you know it’s the right path. Eventually I put together the first 2 white label EPs and brought in Kassem Mosse to rework one of the tracks, and then partnered up with Simon Rigg from Phonica who pressed them, and they immediately flew out. It was a breathe of fresh air at the right time. 2012 I think, so 7 years ago. By 2020, there’ll be 7 SR albums released, which seems insane but I just follow my instincts all the time.

Your output has been pretty relentless this year. You’re releasing 4 albums in 2019, 2 of which we’ve already heard. A lot of producers would limit their output, or stagger their releases to maybe 1 or 2 records per year. What was the ideas and reasoning behind releasing the projects so close together?

The reason is that I’ve stopped giving a fuck about what anyone else is doing in terms of how they release or how they structure things. I’m not interested in fitting into anyone else’s ideas of how it should be. I’m doing exactly what I feel from moment to moment. The idea of making one album and touring it live for 2 years followed by another is just not where my head is at — that’s not to say it can’t be extremely effective, but it’s an outdated dinosaur rock model. There are people who make it work but my approach is from the art, not the business. I do not make music as a business. I do it because I have a psychological need to do it, as wanky as that sounds. Every day I’m not travelling I make music, and I’m in a flow where I no longer need to think about it, it just falls out daily. In terms of clustering them – I’m seeing clearly that we may do the 4th album next year purely because the machinery around it all needs tweaking, but everything is under review constantly.

You’ve also made sure you rule the single charts as well with your track as Paul Woolford with Karen Harding. Have your reached a stage in production where it’s completely natural to keep these two identities apart? Are you ever tempted to slip in sound clues of Special Request into Paul Woolford music, or even – do you feel you do this already?

Right now, they are poles apart. There was a time when I was “crossing the streams” a touch (watch Ghostbusters if you don’t know what I’m getting at) which was fun at the time. I’ve remixed myself under the other name a couple of times, which was quite funny, but now the Paul Woolford stuff is totally all-out house music with pop edges and SR is basically everything BUT that. I do sometimes play some of the SR garage remixes out when I’m playing house sets as they bring a certain rougher charm to things, but that’s about as much as the streams are crossed these days. I have a PW record coming that I’ve made with Diplo, so that will shake it all up further.

The way you’ve continued to grow both identities together and, in a sense, gained two separate audiences for your music no doubt assures how strong your influence is across the dance music spectrum. On that note though, do you ever find pursuing two production aliases in the industry has its own complications, or aspects you don’t enjoy?

They have grown different audiences, which is really interesting and satisfying for me. I’ve always wanted to reach as many people as I can, even before I was making music as overtly pop-edged as some of the PW records are now. It’s a naturally evolved thing. There are no complications at all — everything has become easier because I can walk into the studio and make anything I want, knowing there is an outlet. I think other people looking in find their own complexities. Sometimes people are baffled by my approach and especially with the SR material, they are looking for conceptual things where I have pretty much dispensed with that now. The premise of each Special Request album is one simple sentence or idea, and then I build all the music out of that. So it’s streamlined down to the absolute definitive version of the idea. This is my approach for every project.

I used to find the business stuff stressful, but this has now disappeared and I actively relish it these days. I don’t use management and I negotiate all my deals myself before handing them to the lawyer. Most artists would answer “I hate social networking” at this point but I’ve started to love Instagram. There’s nothing that I don’t love about what I do. I’m basically a pig wallowing in shit on a daily basis. And it smells fucking lovely.

Looking back over what you’ve already released, Vortex was a pretty explosive start to this series of albums. I loved the whole no-nonsense attitude towards plugging it too – a refreshing take to the quite serious and ‘conceptual’ press and promotions we so often see in new dance music projects. Why did you decide to go down this route? Do you feel it’s important to keep things light hearted in the industry?

I got rid of the conceptual stuff because I wanted to see what the repercussions were of being more direct than ever. Many people actually have nothing to say with their music, they are expressing themselves through it, so the message is something you hear. Applying a concept is a selling technique, and as much as it can be fascinating in the right hands, more often than not it’s paper-thin. So I just thought fuck all that. I had a laugh making Vortex and I wanted everyone else to have one listening to it. You can imbue music with something like this with how you behave when it’s being made, which is one of life’s little magical codes that blows my mind.

I’m having the time of my life making this stuff, and on the other end, people feel this and react when they listen. It’s a beautiful thing! You can say it’s just binary code until you are blue in the face, there’s more going on in there and if you are truly tapped into it, the music holds and conveys emotions stronger than anything else on earth. You can change your brain chemistry through frequencies. We’re all bombarded with press releases every day, but tell me when was the last time you REALLY got excited from reading one? We have to get in there and shake the shit up now, music is such an entrenched and commodified thing now that the people who can do this will gain from it, and the rest will remain obscure.

Where Vortex shows a side to you as no-nonsense and jovial both musically and personally, Bedroom Tapes shows a more vulnerable side to you perhaps – the formative years of Paul Woolford. Why did you think it was necessary to show this side of you and your production, especially following the frivolity of Vortex?

I had been tempted to release the old stuff, something told me I needed to do it in case anything happened to me, not to be too dark about it all, but you know what I mean. I need to shape my own legacy while I’m still around, so it was partly that, and partly because I think some people expected 4 albums of turbo nutter hardcore or something, which would have been boring as fuck. I need contrasts. But yeah, I was shitting myself about releasing Bedroom Tapes because it did feel vulnerable. I don’t think Vortex is frivolous either, it’s just blatant fuck-offery — in fact, I actually said that was the genre of album 4 to my press agent recently and she was absolutely horrified. You know that feeling when you hear something and the emotion is that you cannot quite believe it. Mentally you say it yourself. “Fuck OFF” – That’s exactly what I’m referring to. It’s a compliment.

What were your thoughts when first rediscovering the recordings? Did you notice an innocence in your production or qualities you’d unconsciously moved away from as a producer? And did the album require any tweaking?

I was shitting myself about listening to them at first, and there was loads of really bad hardcore, but amongst all of that, some real gems. I tweaked them a bit, bunged all the tracks through a multiband compressor and some extra reverb over it all even though it had tons already, and then sent them to Matt Colton and the label. It’s testament to Houndstooth that they heard them when they were being mastered, I had pushed it all so much time wise. That is trust. So respect to them.

What do the guys over there do differently to other labels you’ve worked with?

They have absolute trust in me. And I drive them up the wall because I operate the way I do – Rob Butterworth is still horrified with me for that tweet last year in December when I said I was releasing 4 albums, but ultimately they enable my vision and they do it in a fucking brilliant manner. I’ve accepted that it’s not enough for me to do things the “normal” way – whatever the fuck THAT is. Actually, I find what most people think is normal absolutely bizarre, so maybe that’s at the heart of it all. We have a unique relationship.

I like to think DJs and producers will always be learning and evolving, are there still lessons you’re learning today after all these years of producing? And do you have people in your life that are teaching you these things?

I’m constantly learning, you never stop really, or at least you shouldn’t. There’s a theory that you can learn something from every person that crosses your path, and I keep that in mind. Even if it’s that you should avoid that person in the future.. there’s always something. Some of the most important things come from the most surprising directions so the key thing is to be open to it constantly. I have people coming into my life who have entirely different world views but who have absolutely altered their own lives and those of millions more, so yeah, you never stop learning. It’s vital really. If you ever think you know it all, then I’d say you’ve fucked it.

So with two more albums yet to come before the end of the year, what can we expect from both of them?

Offworld is next and started off with the idea of “what if Jam & Lewis signed to Metroplex?” I’m buzzing to see how this goes down because I feel like it’s a fucking beauty. Obliteration is after that, and we’ll see when we are ready.. is the world ready is the question…

Houndstooth will release Offworld on 11th October 2019.

Words: George Hancock

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